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Journal of American History

Taking Seriously the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

Section Introduction
Gary J. Kornblith & Carol Lasser

Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey
Lendol Calder

Ways of Seeing: An Introduction
Michael Coventry, Peter Felten, David Jaffee, Cecilia O’Leary, and Tracey Weis, with Susannah McGowan

Thinking Visually as Historians: Incorporating Visual Methods
David Jaffee

Confronting Prior Visual Knowledge, Beliefs, and Habits: “Seeing” beyond the Surface
Peter Felten

What’s the Problem? Connecting Scholarship, Interpretation, and Evidence in Telling Stories about Race and Slavery
Tracey Weis

Moving beyond "the Essay": Evaluating Historical Analysis and Argument in Multimedia Presentations
Michael Coventry

Connecting to the Public: Using New Media to Engage Students in the Iterative Process of History
Cecila O’Leary

Ways of Seeing: A Conclusion
Michael Coventry, Peter Felten, David Jaffee, Cecilia O’Leary, and Tracey Weis, with Susannah McGowan

Moving beyond "the Essay": Evaluating Historical Analysis and Argument in Multimedia Presentations

Michael Coventry

What might it look like if our media-savvy students expressed their historical analysis through new media? What can we learn about how historical knowledge is created by watching students make and present their work in new-media forms? Because at times written description has seemed inadequate to communicate the richness of the visual and aural record of popular culture, my students and I experiment with creating short multimedia narratives as a way of exploring those questions. In these projects, students intermingle images, music, and voice narration to form a multimedia, multidimensional critique. Becoming interpreters and explainers of the cultural past and present, they analyze their objects of study and create multimedia projects in order to tell interpretative stories, to show the viewer examples and evidence to support their interpretations, and to connect their stories to larger themes in culture and history studies. In this essay I use tools from the scholarship of teaching and learning to describe my students' learning and some of its constituent features through an examination of student multimedia experiments. 34

As the only historian teaching in an interdisciplinary media, technology, and culture studies M.A. program, I introduce my discipline and its habits of thought to students. My students come from a variety of backgrounds, possessing bachelor's degrees in journalism, film studies, political science, or business, to name just a few possibilities. Their degree program exposes them to a broad range of issues raised by networked technologies and new media. Most come into my courses with intricate frameworks for understanding media, and they eagerly embrace opportunities to think about how to interpret and analyze in formats that move beyond writing.

Using evidence of various sortsódigitized film or video footage, images, photographs, musicómy students build multimedia analysis by the juxtaposition of this historical evidence with their own analytic voices presented in recorded narration or titles. In written narratives, historians present textual evidence through quotations, numeric evidence through tables, and visual evidence through reproductions of photographs, maps, or cartoons. We surround this evidence with interpretation, placing quotations among our statements or directing our reader's eye to images or tables reproduced above or beside our analysis. But too oftenóand this is most apparent in the case of video or musicówe are forced to represent visual evidence and pinpoint our analysis to specific parts of it through written description. Multimedia allows audiences to see or hear moving pictures or songs; it allows authors to show multiple examples quickly with narration over them or to guide viewers over specific parts of an image and show analysis directly beside or over a specific point.35 When projects are successful, they engage in the sort of insightful, carefully considered argument we expect from written work, but the means of expression can be very different. Multimedia allows my students to show their subjects as they analyze them. Such work thus illustrates both the possibilitiesóand some of the limitsóof multimedia authoring for academic work.

Looking closely at my students' projects reveals that multimedia work in history depends on the relationship of two key techniques: (1) the compression of argument and (2) the use of simplistic cultural memories for complicated ends. The multichanneled, multilayered nature of multimedia authoring allowsóindeed relies onócompression of argument, conveying a great deal of information quickly and by a variety of means. Compression intentionally invokes simplistic cultural memories to make its argument. It occurs in all forms of communication, including writing, but multimedia authoring brings compression to the fore: the viewer must recognize an era or associate a sound with a particular cultural milieu. The best multimedia authoring projects will then explain, clarify, or challenge the cultural memory in question.

Two student multimedia projects showed me how the two interrelated techniques are central to the presentation of historical analysis in new-media narrative forms. Alyson Hurt's digital story revealed the historical construction of simplistic cultural memories, while deploying compression to show that the very cultural knowledge she invokes as evidence is historically contingent. Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska used a period style of filmmaking to evoke, through compression, an entire era. She then mixed evidence and argument to read her subject outward, into a larger historical argument. Alyson Hurt's digital story explored a contemporary television program starring actor Ben Sander in drag as Brini Maxwell, a "domestic goddess" who guides viewers to perfect home life through exemplary cooking, cleaning, and decorating. Hurt's story used multimedia capabilities to establish a historical context for her subject. Hurt illustrated the continuity of domestic goddess ideals in American culture with a montage of 1950s and 1960s photos and TV footage of Donna Reedóan actress famous for her popular television portrayal of a perfect housewifeóand similar TV and magazine images of the 1990s celebrity domestic expert Martha Stewart. Hurt then introduced Maxwell, a crossdressing television personality whose use of the domestic diva tradition helps show the historical construction of gender, particularly the performance of housewife and domestic goddess. Working in new media, Hurt could accentuate the ways Maxwell self-consciously performs and destabilizes the domestic diva tradition. Maxwell's clothing and sets exist in a no-man's-land between contemporary style and the aesthetic of the late 1950sñearly 1960s, when Reed's show was popular. This is intentional: according to Hurt, "Maxwell cites Reed as one of her biggest inspirations."36 The connection to Martha Stewart is effected through Maxwell's blonde wig and statuesque height. While both connections could be conveyed in writing (as I have just done), multimedia allowed Hurt to demonstrate her point more vividly. Viewers could see in chronological order the domestic icons from whom Maxwell creates her satirical performance. In this sense, multimedia provided the cultural evidence alongside Hurt's analytic voice.

Just as she simultaneously showed Maxwell performing a particular femininity and documented its construction, Hurt used the show's intentionally simplistic cultural memory of the history of femininity to demonstrate that memory's instability. As she wrote in her reflective essay, the show "both celebrates and satirizes these 'old-school' values. Brini's sensibility seems intentionally anachronistic, provoking dissonance between Brini and the perceived sensibilities of 'modern' women and further underscoring the fact that Brini is a constructed persona."37 Throughout the project, Hurt relied on this dissonance between the viewer's sensibilities, the mythical womanhood Maxwell portrayed, and Maxwell's outrageous and self-referential performance in order to make a critique. Hurt assumed that the viewer would recognize the satire in Maxwell's performance. In this sense, Hurt was working with key features of new-media argument: the multimedia author relies on the viewer's store of cultural knowledge and uses images, music, or other keys to evoke that knowledge and to show complex juxtapositions of meaning. Yet compression works only if viewers possess the cultural knowledge needed to give a story the intellectual and emotional effects the author intends. Compression functions paradoxically as a limitation and strength of multimedia: when Hurt "reveals" her subject's "true" gender, we are forced to question all the assumptions we have brought to bear in viewing the entire piece.

In her multimedia project, Rymsza-Pawlowska used the style of a silent newsreel to evoke the 1920s. She interwove still images, clips from period movies, and full screens of text (intertitles) to present her analysis of smoking as a symbol of women's modernity and relative freedom in 1920s popular culture. Her choice of genre allowed her to present evidence and analysis together. "The film clips and advertising stills speak for themselves," she reflected, "and with the help of the intertitles, indicate a strong case" for historical change. She chose the "gushing style" of the newsreel as a way of "conveying the excitement of the modernity that was very much a feature of the decade."38 Through the creative use of the newsreel format, Rymsza-Pawlowska both evoked the era and made her argument seem to come from within that very era.

Clips segments from 1920s films

Michael Coventry’s student Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska evokes the 1920s by mixing her own intertitles with historical film clips and accompanying them with period music. She connects women, smoking, and female performances of modernity and independence. “Lighting Up at the Dawn of Modernity,” digital story, Communication, Culture, and Technology Program, Georgetown University, Dec. 2004. Clip segments: above from Possessed, dir. Clarence Brown (Warner Brothers, 1931); and below from Three on a Match, dir. Mervyn Le Roy (Warner Brothers, 1932). Courtesy Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska.

Like Hurt, Rymsza-Pawlowska opened her piece with a rapid montage of images: a headline about woman suffrage, a headline about shortening skirts, and a clip of women typing in an office, signaling some of the "large-scale socio-economic and political transformations that would profoundly affect the lives of American women" in the early twentieth century.39 Thus she set the stage for her overall argument: the connections between smoking in popular culture as a symbol of women's independence and the real changes in women's lives in the 1900sñ1920s. Again like Hurt, Rymsza-Pawlowska used compression in her opening montage to establish context. But while Hurt sought to establish a lineage showing the ways gender is a historical construct, Rymsza-Pawlowska evoked and established multiple historical factors using artifacts from a single period. She then placed her subjectósmokingóin this context as a symbol and expression of white middle-class women's "new freedoms" in the decade.

Also like Hurt, Rymsza-Pawlowska relied on and attempted to undermine our prior cultural knowledge of the era. After evoking the context of social change, Rymsza-Pawlowska showed how smoking signaled the flapper's freedom while symbolizing more significant developments. She used images of a variety of women engaged in relatively new public leisure activities (with and without men) while smoking to help us understand the broader reach of this symbol beyond the flapper stereotype.40 But unlike Hurt, who, reading inward or deeply, focused on one subject in detail over time, Rymsza-Pawlowska read one subject (modern woman/flapper/female smoker) outward through advertisements, still images, and movie clips. She connected her subject to a variety of discourses to show that subject's ubiquity and the force of its meaning across 1920s culture.

Both Hurt and Rymsza-Pawlowska relied on compression of argument, and both evoked cultural memories and stereotypes to produce their historical analyses. Yet, to most historians, those very moves might at first glance seem to flatten intellectual complexity. How do we know that accounts are critiquing, not replicating, the simplistic cultural memories they invoke when they undertake compression? How can we tell when stereotypical images reproduce old interpretations or when they instead open interpretative possibilities? To answer those questions, historians can turn to the scholarship of teaching and learning for methods that help us watch carefully as students make choices about bringing together video clips, images, narration, and music to build their arguments. Due to the very compression of the form, we might at first glance miss the deep complexity of the arguments. It is easy for those of us trained to argue using words to focus solely on the narration of a digital story, without paying attention to the ways the words work with, over, and against the visual narrative constructed by the student. We need to learn to read new-media forms so that we can recognize the intended argument within them. In addition to strengthening our own knowledge of multimedia communication, another way to ascertain complexity is to ask students to reflect on their own intentions, whether in written proposals for projects, post-project reflective papers, or video- or audiotaped reflections. Like a successful research paper, a successful multimedia narrative project in history is based on solid research and analysis and is the product of multiple drafts and revisions. Asking students to share draft scripts with the professor, to turn in bibliographies, or to write reflectionsóall are ways of increasing our understanding of student intentions, sophistication of argument, and (relative) success in their projects. The standards of argument are the same, but the possibilities for making them are decidedly different.

34 For other explorations of digital storytelling, see Tracey M. Weis et al., ìDigital Storytelling in Culture and History Classrooms,î in Engines of Inquiry: Approaches to Teaching, Learning, and Technology in American Culture Studies, ed. Michael Coventry (1998; Washington, 2003), 397ñ413; Viet Than Nguyen, ìHow Do We Tell Stories?,î ibid., 363ñ96; and Joe Lambert, Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community (Berkeley, 2002). From the literature on new media, see Mark Stephen Meadows, Pause and Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative (Indianapolis, 2003); Gunnar Liestol, Andrew Morrison, and Terje Rassmussen, eds., Digital Media Revisited: Theoretical and Conceptual Innovations in Digital Domains (Cambridge, Mass., 2003); Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Mass., 2001); and Mary E. Hocks and Michelle R. Kendrick, eds., Eloquent Images: Word and Image in the Age of New Media (Cambridge, Mass., 2003). On describing features of student learning, see Pat Hutchings, ìApproaching the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,î in Opening Lines: Approaches to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, ed. Pat Hutchings (Menlo Park, 2000), 4.

35 On juxtaposition, see Nancy Barta-Smith and Danette DiMarco, ìSame Difference: Evolving Conclusions about Textuality and New Media,î in Eloquent Images, ed. Hocks and Kendrick, 159ñ78; and Jennifer Wiley, ìCognitive and Educational Implications of Visually Rich Media: Images and Imagination,î ibid., 201ñ15. On visual arguments, see Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen, Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (New York, 1996); N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines (Cambridge, Mass., 2002); and Edward R. Tufte, Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative (Cheshire, Conn., 1997).

36 Alyson Hurt, ìHow to Be a Domestic Goddess,î digital story, Communication, Culture, and Technology Program, Georgetown University, May 2004; Alyson Hurt, ìHow to Be a Domestic Goddess,î reflective paper, Communication, Culture, and Technology Program, Georgetown University, May 11, 2004, p. 1 (in Michael Coventryís possession).

37 Hurt, ìHow to Be a Domestic Goddess,î reflective paper, 6. The theory of gender performance also influenced Hurtís reading. See, for example, Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, 1990).

38 Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska, ìëLighting Up at the Dawn of Modernity,íî digital story, Communication, Culture, and Technology Program, Georgetown University, Dec. 2004; Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska, ìëLighting Up at the Dawn of Modernityí: The 1920s Woman and Smoking as a Performance of Social Change,î reflective paper, Communication, Culture, and Technology Program, Georgetown University, Dec. 16, 2004 (in Coventryís possession).

39 Rymsza-Pawlowska, ìëLighting Up at the Dawn of Modernity,íî digital story; Rymsza-Pawlowska, ìëLighting Up at the Dawn of Modernity,íî reflective paper, 2.

40 Rymsza-Pawlowska, ìëLighting Up at the Dawn of Modernity,íî reflective paper, 5.

Next essay: Cecila O'Leary, "Connecting to the Public" >